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Scenic Construction for the Stage: Key Skills for Carpenters

Scenic Construction for the Stage: Key Skills for Carpenters

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Scenic Construction for the Stage: Key Skills for Carpenters

519 pagine
3 ore
Jun 25, 2018


Scenic Construction for the Stage is a comprehensive guide to the practical processes involved in constructing scenery for the theatre. Offering key insight into the role of the scenic carpenter, Mark Tweed details the progression from interpreting design, model boxes and drawings, to material selection, fabrication and finishing. Additional topics include advice for developing accuracy, finish and consistency; tool selection and sharpening; CDM, Health and Safety; practical workshop mathematics and geometry, and how to fit ironmongery. With an in-depth but accessible approach, this practical book offers advice on how to start out and improve as a scenic carpenter, building a solid repertoire of reliable techniques and working practices to achieve professional results. Includes a foreword by Sir Kenneth Branagh and illustrated throughout with 350 colour photographs and 34 technical drawings and detailed step-by-step instructions.
Jun 25, 2018

Informazioni sull'autore

Mark Tweed is currently the Head of Construction at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) where he teaches scenic carpentry, project management and CAD, as well as supervising construction for public productions. He recently managed the build for RADA's fundraising production of Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and continues to work as a freelance project manager and carpenter. Mark began his career in scenic construction working for the Royal Opera House as a production carpenter, including work on Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) and Faust.

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Scenic Construction for the Stage - Mark Tweed




Every carpenter, theatre and workshop will have their own particular style and way of doing things based on any number of factors, so a book that represents the ‘definitive’ way to build scenery doesn’t really exist. However, what I hope this book will provide you with is a solid methodology to enable you to produce scenic elements that are accurate, functional and well finished, whatever the scale or budget. It is designed to encourage a consistent approach, which may be adapted to suit your working practice.

An ‘A-frame’ brace temporarily fitted to a flat in the workshop.

With a consistent approach, it is possible to produce anything that your imagination and resources will allow, and will quickly build confidence to tackle ambitious projects. Whilst the emphasis is very much on practical projects and exercises, there is plenty of background information to put the principles demonstrated within the book into context. As you will see, this approach takes the form of step-by-step projects, technical drawings and sketches, and photographic examples of professional work. Hopefully this will prove a useful resource that will appeal to you whether you are a technical theatre student, professional carpenter, draughtsperson or project manager, and also to those of you who are involved in local theatre groups or school productions, and want to get more involved in creating sets.

Theatre sets are rarely built from a single type of material, and often require input from craftspeople and technicians with a wide variety of skill bases.In the digital era with projection mapping, automation and VR at the forefront of production design, the very definition of what a ‘set’ actually comprises changes all the time. However, as advanced and forward looking as theatre production can be, there is always a need for the traditional and the reliable, not only as a foundation from which these new technologies can be used, but to suit the majority of theatre productions, which either require a more traditional aesthetic, or are less reliant on technology.

Carpentry and joinery, as well as metalwork fabrication, represent the mainstay of the industry. In my experience of the two, working in timber is by far the most common practice (although as a carpenter I am obviously biased) as it is an extremely versatile material, and can be undertaken with even the most basic tool kit. That said, timber does require a good understanding of its properties and applications to make the best use of it, which is what I aim to do in this book.

Having a wide range of skills in your repertoire, and the ability to combine different materials, will make you infinitely more adaptable and employable, and I would certainly encourage anyone in this field to try out as many related production crafts as you can. The techniques and materials discussed here should serve as a useful guide for many different projects, not limited purely to scenic construction.

Above all, the most important factor in learning practical skills is developing consistency through practice. No amount of reading will make up for a lack of ‘hands-on’ practice, so spending time ‘on the tools’ honing your craft will pay dividends. Put in the time to get the basics right, look for ways to make small improvements, and with patience and practice you will be producing work of a professional standard.

The aim of this book is to give a solid introduction to the fundamental carpentry skills and processes involved in building scenery for the stage, presented from a practical perspective, with which you can begin to expand your skills and refresh your knowledge.


The author, Mark Tweed.

I have always had a passion for making things, and I am never happier than when I am either putting something together or taking it apart. As fun as it can be to make things for yourself, I find that creating something which is part of a collaborative process even more satisfying. Theatre is the perfect arena in which to work with a huge range of people, each with different skills and interests. Together you can produce something which is greater than the sum of its parts, in the sense that you are part of creating an experience that audiences will remember for far longer than just the run of the production.

I trained to be a scenic carpenter at RADA, which gave me an excellent foundation in a wide range of technical skills. I was lucky enough to be offered a job as a production carpenter at the Royal Opera House workshops upon graduation, where I spent a few years honing my skills and broadening my understanding of what went into building for productions on a large scale. My first professional build was on Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and I went on to work on many others, including Faust, The Tempest and Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Opera House maintains a traditional approach to scenery in many respects, with carpentry at its core, and during my time there I learned something new every day. I worked with some fantastic people who generously shared their knowledge and experience with me, much of which I am passing on to you in this book.

Following my time at the Opera House, I returned to RADA as a tutor, and have been the Head of Construction for several years, training students of all abilities, running the department and supervising builds for public productions, of which there are around fifteen per year. Alongside this I continue to work as a freelance carpenter and project manager when time allows! The huge variety of work in the scenic construction field means that every day is different, and every build a chance to work with new people, and either brush up on old skills or try something new.

I hope that reading this book encourages you to push your skills, try new projects and, most importantly, enjoy the work!


Rookery Nook, Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre. Director: William Gaskill; Designer: Douglas Heap © RADA.




Behind every production is the creative team who provide the aesthetic and artistic setting in which the play can take place. Their process and priorities can be different to that of the workshop, although the team as a whole are working towards the same goal. Understanding the roles within the creative team and being empathetic to their process will ultimately lead to a smoother build and higher standard of work. Making theatre can be a fascinating balance of creative thinking, artistic vision and technical skill, however often the reality of the considerations facing the construction team, such as the budget and schedule, as well as the health and safety considerations and logistics, can at times seem at odds with these aspects.

The scenic workshop at the National Theatre, where construction, scenic art and props teams work closely together to produce work of the highest standard.

Developing a deeper appreciation of what can be achieved, and a willingness to negotiate and experiment, rather than just being tempted to do things the ‘easiest way’ in terms of construction, will aid the finish and your enjoyment. It will mean you create the best work to serve the production, and you will gain greater satisfaction in the work, from being that much more invested in the process as a whole.

The team itself will vary depending on the scale and set-up of a production, but the key roles you may find yourself in contact with are the production manager, the designer and the workshop foreman.

The Production Manager

The production manager is responsible for all the technical aspects of staging a production. They will plan the schedule from the initial design meetings through to the get-out, and need to have a solid understanding of a huge range of both technical and creative disciplines, and the relationship that these have with each other, in order to stage a successful production. In construction terms the production manager will be keeping an eye on the progress of the build in relation to the schedule and budget, as well as keeping the construction department informed of any design changes or developments.

Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, or CDM, is a set of regulations written by the Health and Safelty Executive in the UK which now covers most theatres, performance spaces and venues. They specifically focus on putting in place a clear hierarchy of responsibility, from the early stages of the design process through to the management of the fit-up and get-out, relating specifically to sets and staging. The production manager is at the heart of this process. The idea behind it is that systems of communication are streamlined, as all the health and safety information and schedules will be in one place for the whole team to access, and can be updated via a live document.

Jacqui Leigh and Guy Fryer, RADA’s Production and Technical Managers respectively, deliver a pre get-out ‘toolbox talk’ to the technical teams.

How does this affect you as a carpenter? Probably the most important part of this process is the ‘toolbox talk’ with the team prior to work starting. This will generally be led by the production manager or workshop foreman, and should give everyone a clear picture of the aims for the day. Any details of the plan can be discussed with everyone present, which will make for a smooth and safe build, fit-up or get-out. This should also cover basic requirements, such as where the toilets are, when the breaks are, and who everyone is. This inclusive approach not only keeps everyone informed, but reduces the risk of an accident, saves a lot of time, and avoids the potential for miscommunication.

The Designer

Set Designer Judith Croft’s white card model for RADA’s production of Assassins.

Designer Adrian Linford and Director Phillip Franks talk through their ideas for Women Beware Women with Production Manager Jacqui Leigh.

The member of the creative team with whom you should find yourself in regular contact is the designer. In theatre, particularly the designer is often responsible for designing both the set and also costumes to help provide a cohesive style for the piece, although this is not always the case. Their process is closely linked to the play itself, as well as the process of the director.

The designer will begin by reading the play and discussing it with the director, analysing characters and settings to begin to form an idea of the scope of the design. The play may be set in a specific historical period or geographical location, or be staged in a particular style of art or performance. The designer will begin researching these to help provide a creative ‘palette’ of colours, shapes, objects and locations to inform their design. They will also begin to look at the theatre space itself to get an idea of not only the physical dimensions of the stage, but also the technical possibilities in terms of scene changes, masking, audience configuration and the physical attributes of the venue itself, which may be tied into the design.

Once their research is completed, the designer will begin to produce a ‘white card’ model box of the set, a 1:25 scale model of the theatre with key elements of set and props modelled simply for experimentation and discussion with the production team. The main purpose of this is to get a sense of the concept in three dimensions, and to see how the design could work in relation to the ground plan. At this point the various practicalities and technical considerations can be discussed with the director, production manager and often the departmental team leaders (construction, scenic art, wardrobe) before committing to a final design.

The designer will produce a final model and supporting drawings to present to the team at a production meeting. Usually the director will introduce the play and their vision for staging the piece. The designer will present their final design in the form of a finished model with full detail and accurate paint finishes, as well as technical drawings and references for the construction and props teams, and costume drawings and samples for wardrobe to work from.

The play is often ‘storyboarded’ during the meeting using the model box to show major events and scene changes, and to give the team a good idea of the technical requirements relevant to their department.

So as you can appreciate, the designer’s process can be complex, and can encompass a huge range of variables. Therefore supporting them through this process, asking them questions about their design, putting your ideas forward and experimenting with theirs, will lead to interesting and satisfying work.

Hand-drawn designer’s plans on the board ready to be analysed by the construction team.

The Workshop Foreman

As a carpenter, you will generally report directly to the workshop foreman, who will supervise the build taking place in the workshop. They will be a carpentry specialist with an in-depth understanding of the materials, tools and techniques required to undertake the build, and are often the link between the drawing or production team and the fabrication team, making sure that drawings are ready to go to the workshop and that materials are in stock. They will often dictate the pace of the build, keep an eye on the quality of the work before it leaves the workshop, and induct new team members on the use of machinery.


The work of the construction team really begins once the technical drawings and model box are available to work from. These drawings can take many forms, sometimes drawn by hand in a traditional style, and now more commonly using CAD (computer-aided design) programmes. The same applies to the model box, which may be a physical object or may be rendered in 3D to allow for manipulation, again using a CAD programme. It is common for designers to provide references in the form of photographs and sketches to support their drawings, and allow the workshop team to interpret the style of the piece using the ‘language’ of the design.

Every designer has their own style, and will express their ideas in a different way depending on the area of their technical expertise. What they all have in common is the desire to communicate their ideas clearly to the team to ensure that their vision of the piece is accurately recreated on stage. Therefore, understanding the format of the most common styles of technical drawing will help you to achieve this goal.

The title block contains vital information about the technical drawing. GARY THORNE

A scale ruler is an essential tool when interpreting drawings and model boxes.

A guide to the various line types found on a technical drawing. GARY THORNE

Before reading drawings it is important to understand the visual language and format that they are drawn in. The first port of call when looking at any technical drawing is the title block. This will contain information related to the production such as the name of the play, the director and the venue as well as crucial technical information relating to the drawing itself. Before planning or building anything, be sure to study this carefully, as some of the unanswered questions arising from studying the drawing itself may be addressed here.

In theatre, most printed venue drawings are 1:25 scale (1mm on paper: 25mm in reality); however, some larger theatres, and opera houses in particular, will print at 1:50 due to the size of the venue and in the interests of making the drawing printable. Drawings of individual set pieces may vary, but will typically be at 1:25, though sometimes details and smaller pieces will be drawn at 1:10 – but the main point to take from this is always to check the scale! On most CAD programmes, plans will be drawn at 1:1 (full size) as the drawing is not restricted by the physical dimensions of a piece of paper or plotter, and can be manipulated however required to find dimensions and zoom in on details. Therefore, in the case of CAD technical drawings, scale only really becomes relevant once a drawing is printed out.

Technical drawings use different line types to differentiate the various elements on the drawing and allow multiple lines to overlap and still make sense. They may use different colours to this end also, in which case a key will be provided on the drawing. The chart on page 17 shows the various line types and features you may see on a typical plan.


Arguably the most crucial information on a technical drawing are the dimensions. They are presented in different ways, sometimes in a linear fashion where they are parallel to the edge of the drawing or aligned to the various parts of the drawing. It is advisable to work from the printed dimensions on the drawing rather than scaling them off with a ruler, due to the potential for inaccuracy. It is also possible, particularly in the case of small revisions to hand-drawn plans, that dimensions have been altered without the drawing being changed, so always check before moving forwards. Dimensions for bench drawings should ideally be presented in millimetres (mm).

Orthographic Projection

A large proportion of technical drawings for the purposes of construction will be drawn using what is known as ‘orthographic projection’. The drawing itself is two dimensional and presented in a series of different views to allow accurate interpretation of the subject as a three-dimensional object. At least two views are required to depict an object accurately: usually a plan or top view and elevations of the front and side views will be provided.

Orthographic Projection

The benefit of these drawings is that dimensions are true to each view, and they are the most accurate and clear way of presenting the crucial dimensions of height width and depth in a clear format to work from.

Developed Surfaces

In some cases, accurate or ‘true’ dimensions for a piece cannot be taken from the standard orthographic views of top front and side due to their shape. In the case of a raked rostra, if the boards on top were cut to the dimensions on the plan view and then set at the rake angle, they would be the wrong size. It is important therefore to look out for supporting drawings which have ‘developed’ surfaces to allow you to calculate and cut more complex shapes accurately. These drawings can be produced using the original drawing, and additional views added.

3D Projections

It is also common for two-dimensional drawings to depict objects in three dimensions by using two different forms, known as axonometric and isometric projections. Essentially both types come under the umbrella of orthographic projection and serve the same purpose, which is to help visualize the shape of the piece to support the basic 2D views. As you can see in the example above, axonometric is drawn using a base angle of 45 degrees, and isometric with an angle of 30 degrees. Axonometric is drawn using true dimensions but as a result appears distorted, whereas isometric is drawn with shortened dimensions but appears more ‘realistic’.

Axonometric projection.

Isometric projection.

One of the benefits of using CAD programmes is being able to manipulate objects in 3D,

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